MEMPHIS — The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, drained all the life out of the surrounding urban center. Overnight, people and money fled to the eastern part of the county, far from the Mississippi River that defined the Bluff City.
Russell Wigginton, who is now director of the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the former motel, said he didn’t venture downtown 10 times as an undergraduate at Rhodes College in Memphis during the mid-80s. “It felt abandoned,” he recalled. “It was not a place that felt inviting or safe, or that it was a place to wander without a destination.”
The withering of the downtown district encapsulated the decline of the entire metropolis. Outside investors stayed away. Many Memphians — Black and white — said they lost confidence in the future. “The assassination of King just killed us economically as well as morally,” said Pitt Hyde, the founder of the retail chain AutoZone and, with his wife, Barbara, the backer of the city’s leading philanthropic organization.
With a steady pace that has escalated over the last five years, downtown has been pulsing back to vitality. Two ambitious new projects by leading architecture firms are at the forefront of the renaissance, using design to lift Memphis’s image in the eyes of its citizens and the outside world. In a city where the gap between rich and poor, white and Black, can seem to yawn as wide as the river, the architects behind the projects cite their ambition to bind Memphians together. The glass facade of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art by Herzog & de Meuron, revealed for the first time this week in detailed renderings, will signal a welcoming storefront feel. Tom Lee Park, a green space overlooking the Mississippi, is being renewed by Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang, with inviting pavilions, plantings and better access for families and older people.
Still, naysayers worry that development will sap the soul of this majority-Black city, where W.C. Handy and B.B. King immortalized Beale Street as the home of the blues, and Elvis Presley hybridized blues and country in the form of rock ’n’ roll. The fear is that an influx of money will turn a friendly, slightly sleepy place, in which the relative merits of rival barbecue joints is the favorite topic of conversation, into a version of Nashville, the hard-driving, corporate-heavy rival city to the east.
The architects of the new museum and park, which are both several years from completion, are determined to overcome these misgivings. “It’s much more than an art museum,” Ascan Mergenthaler, a partner at Herzog & de Meuron, said of the Brooks, speaking from the Basel home office of the firm that designed the Tate Modern and the Beijing Olympics “bird’s nest” stadium. “It will also be a place for people to meet and engage with others and come together. The entire design is developed around the idea of a very inviting, open, permeable building. It is important that you see deep into it.”
The museum is currently housed in a 105-year-old building with modern annexes in midtown Overton Park, removed from the urban core. The move downtown carries a message. “The idea of being on the river is very powerful,” said Mark Resnick, acting executive director of the Brooks, who last June replaced Emily Ballew Neff, the driving force behind the relocation. “You don’t want to be viewed simply as the Beaux-Arts palace in the park.”
At Tom Lee Park, a short walk from the site where the new Brooks is scheduled to open in 2026, Gang, who is Chicago-based, is overseeing the redesign in collaboration with Kate Orff of SCAPE in New York. Both Gang and Orff expressed enthusiasm about reorienting the city to the river, which was long viewed as a place for commercial, not recreational, activities. “It was exciting to think about reconnecting with it and making it accessible to all,” Gang said.
Striding vigorously down a new winding path there, compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, from the light-rail line on the bluff to the river 30 feet below, Gang said, “What does accessibility to all mean? Not just physical accessibility. It is so that people view it as their waterfront, too. How can they be made to feel welcome?”
There is a lot of history here to overcome. To the north of Tom Lee Park, another civic project is underway: the $10 million restoration of Cobblestone Landing, the largest stone-paved riverfront wharf in the country. Completed after the Civil War, it was used for unloading cotton and timber, but in earlier days, enslaved people were made to assemble there. A nearby thoroughfare was called Auction Avenue before it was renamed A.W. Willis Avenue, after the civil rights lawyer, in 2008. Parks that glorified the Confederacy leaders Jefferson Davis and Nathaniel Bedford Forrest have also been renamed, with statues of the two removed in 2017.
And not all the past is distant. Until 1960, the Brooks admitted Black people only on “Negro Thursdays,” and the stigma lingers. “There hasn’t been an acknowledgment of that time,” said Victoria Jones, executive director of Tone, a nonprofit organization that promotes Black artists in the African American neighborhood of Orange Mound. “There’s this conversation that Black folks are allowed in, why aren’t they coming. There hasn’t been reconciliation or an effort to draw people in.”
Jones paid her first visit to the Brooks as a college student fulfilling an assignment. “I was in that museum for two hours before I saw a painting with a Black face in it,” she said. “I thought, this space was never intended for me. I have no reason to want to come to the space if we haven’t acknowledged why I wasn’t wanted at that space.”
Tom Lee Park, a 30-acre grass strip with little shade that stretches a mile down the river, commemorates an African American worker who in 1925 rescued on his small motorboat 32 passengers from a capsized steamer. In 1954, two years after his death, the park was renamed for him. A bronze statue that represents Lee pulling a survivor to safety went up in 2006.
But the park has been underused. An annual high-profile music fair and barbecue festival, Memphis in May, keeps it off-limits to the public for about 40 days of the nicest weather. For much of the rest of the year, the park is an inhospitable scruffy lawn. Orff’s landscape team will plant trees to bring shady relief and add contoured hills. A major part of the budget will go to soil remediation. “Tom Lee is a place that is so exposed and windswept and hot and sunny, if you’re there on a July day, you are there for five minutes and then you are running for shade,” Orff said.
Festival leaders opposed the design, arguing that the new topography would curtail their activities. But the group submitted to arbitration. Three grassy fields were preserved for events. Still, Jim Holt, the president and chief executive of Memphis in May, said, “It’s going to cause a dramatic reduction of our usable space and capacity.”
The festival, which drew 200,000 in 2019, caters to the old-school Memphis establishment. “Your social status in the city of Memphis is directly correlated to the number of invitations you get to go to the various booths,” Holt said. For proponents of the park redesign, that is the problem. Some corporate teams can invest $50,000 in a barbecue booth. The music festival in 2019 charged $65 for a general admission day pass. “It is very exclusive and expensive,” Tyree Daniels, a charter school board chair and investment banker, said. “What are we losing when we have to close the park for the entire month you want to be in the park? People don’t look at the significant impact it has on people who look like me.”
Part of Orff’s efforts have gone to restoring the centrality of the park’s namesake. With the collaboration of the Chicago artist Theaster Gates, the team kept the statue of Tom Lee in mind while planning the park’s topography, which meanders and coalesces much like the Mississippi’s oxbows and wetlands. “We want to pull people through the park and integrate the pedestal into the design,” Orff said. “So you gradually find yourself at the same height as Tom Lee on his pedestal. It elevates you.” Gates is designing an outdoor seating area that will foster storytelling and guided walks to bring that point home.
Memphis, with a poverty rate of almost 25 percent, struggles with an inferiority complex. Johnathan Martin, a photographer whose work has been acquired by the Brooks, said he questioned his worth after he was awarded subsidized artist housing downtown. “When I arrived at my apartment, I didn’t think I qualified, I didn’t think I deserved it,” he said. “It’s internalized racism.” Many Memphians, when asked, seemed incredulous that so much money (through private donations and tax rebates) is being allocated to these projects: $120 million for the museum building, plus an additional $30 million for the endowment, and $61 million for the park redesign. (The Hydes, the major donors for each, contributed $20 million for the Brooks and $5 million for Tom Lee.)
“If we’re going to be a world-class city, we have to invest in world-class amenities,” said Paul Young, chief executive of the Downtown Memphis Commission. “But we need to make sure as we design downtown that the amenities are open to everyone.”
In both Tom Lee Park and the Brooks Museum, programming is key to expanding the audience. In a city that is 64 percent Black, “there is no success that doesn’t robustly include Black people, Black neighborhoods, Black businesses,” said Carol Coletta, a city native who runs the Memphis River Parks Partnership, a nonprofit that oversees six miles of Mississippi riverfront comprising five parks, including Tom Lee. (Daniels is the partnership‘s chair.) Studio Gang assembled focus groups of African American teenagers to gauge what amenities they would value there. The participants asked for basketball courts, barbecue grills, benches, exercise areas. “It’s ordinary things that you’d find in any park,” Gang said. “But putting them on the river elevates everyday activities and makes it something different.”
Still, some Black Memphians view these initiatives skeptically. “I’m not convinced that that effort was authentic,” said Adriane Johnson-Williams, a management and education consultant. “We do a lot of box-checking in Memphis. You say, ‘We’re going to talk to people,’ and you come out with the plan you had going in.”
Placing African American leaders in positions of authority is slowly helping to win over the doubters. Daniels, at the Memphis River Parks Partnership, and Carl Person, the president of the Brooks, are leading figures in the city’s vibrant Black upper middle class. “The new leadership of the museum has changed from two perspectives,” said Person, who assumed his position last January. “An African American is president. That itself is a change. Now they’ve progressed enough that they have a diverse board and staff. And we are also changing through African American art we have and that we are in the process of acquiring.”
Elliot Perry, a star basketball player for Memphis State who went on to the N.B.A. before retiring in 2002, started collecting African American art 25 years ago. He is actively advising the Brooks on acquisitions. “If people come in and see art that looks like them, that makes a huge difference,” he said. Barbara Hyde, the philanthropist, concurred. “I think it would be amazing if Memphis became a destination for people interested in the art of the African diaspora,” she said.
During her job interview at the Brooks Museum, Rosamund Garrett, then an old masters specialist at the Courtauld Gallery in London, was asked to recommend a new acquisition. She looked for a depiction of Balthazar or St. Maurice, two Africans who are portrayed in Renaissance art, and found a Balthazar made in Antwerp about 1515 that was modeled on a Black freeman. The painting was for sale in a Mayfair gallery.
The picture now hangs at the Brooks, where Garrett, hired as its chief curator, is reinstalling the collection “to be radically honest and radically transparent,” she said, and “to think about where the museum is equitable and where it isn’t.” She analyzed the museum’s holdings and found that 7.6 percent were by women artists, compared to the national museum average of 14 percent. She is seeking to rectify that.
A recently endowed fellowship to support a curator who would stage an exhibition on an African American artist resulted in a show last summer of Elizabeth Catlett’s linoleum-cut prints of Black women, which had been languishing in museum storage. Black Memphians thronged to see the exhibition, organized by Heather Nickels, the fellow. But for some, the enthusiasm was tinged with bitterness. “The anger was that how do you have this for 20 years in a Black city and never show them?” Johnson-Williams, the management consultant, explained. “Also gratitude that someone showed up and finally did it. It’s evidence that the museum is trying to be a museum for all of Memphis.”
And not just for African Americans. The museum has partnered with local L.G.B.T.Q. organizations for an exhibition of photographs that Mark Seliger took of transgender people on New York’s Christopher Street. The Brooks is also eager to collaborate with the National Civil Rights Museum and with the Cossitt Library next door. The first Southern library to be desegregated, the Cossitt is now undergoing a renovation. It reopens at the end of the year with studios to record videos and podcasts, a cafe and a new collection of books with an emphasis on African American history. Like the Brooks, the library, which was white-only until 1960, is courting a broader audience.
The cultural boom downtown is echoed by a flurry of commercial construction. “Today it’s the hottest real-estate area in town,” Hyde said. On the east end, a mixed-use development christened The Walk and budgeted at almost $1 billion has begun clearing an 11-acre blighted site.
Alongside the Mississippi, another developer, Chance Carlisle, the 37-year-old scion of a wealthy Memphis family, is constructing three Hyatt hotels. (The first one is already open.) A neighboring upscale rental building, The Landings Residences, was thought to be too expensive for downtown. All 232 units have been rented, Carlisle said, and tenants range from doctors to bartenders. “You can get something for $1,200 to $1,500,” he said. “It’s still dirt cheap.” But for the majority of Memphians, $1,200 in monthly rent for a 450-square foot studio is far from dirt cheap.
Carlisle extolled the Brooks and Tom Lee Park redesigns. “You can’t undercut the importance of what it is like to have great museums and parks,” he said. “That’s how you grow a middle class.” He added that “downtown is everybody’s neighborhood.” But South City, a Memphis neighborhood that is Tennessee’s poorest ZIP code, is only six blocks away. Whether the people who live there regard downtown as theirs is still an open question.
“There is already the clear drumbeat that what’s going on downtown isn’t for us,” Johnson-Williams said. “The cost of housing is too much for the wages here. Too expensive to live there, nothing being built for us. We can’t be Nashville, we don’t want to be Nashville. Stop building all these things for rich white people. When the proportion of white people goes up, the proportion of Black people goes down.”
What she is decrying is not the typical story of gentrification and displacement, because virtually no one was living in the downtown areas that are now being developed. It is the vague anxiety that what makes the city special — a culture world-famous for its music and barbecue — might be lost.
Other African American Memphians are less fearful. “Downtown Memphis is never going to feel like downtown Nashville,” Wigginton said. “It’s still going to be kind of funky down here. You’re not going to be more than two or three blocks away from the reality of most people in the world. It’s still very reasonable to live here. I don’t think that’s ever going away.”